Laughter, tears and pepperoni
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
MSU’s Artificial Language Lab celebrates 35 years.
“What hath God wrought?”
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“I’d like to order a pizza.”
All three utterances are historic. Only one will get you a pizza.
In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the world’s first telegraph message. In 1969, Neil Armstrong spoke the first words from the Moon.
Saturday night, the Artificial Language Lab at Michigan State celebrated a lesser-known, greasier milestone in human communication.
In December of 1974, Donald Sherman, an MSU alumnus and advocate for the disabled, became the first person to order a pizza using an artificial speech device. Sherman has Moebius syndrome, a facial paralysis that keeps him from closing his lips into a “b” or “p.”
That’s a cruel turn if you love big band music, “The Blues Brothers,” or pepperoni pizza, as Sherman does.
With the help of a computer voice called “Alexander,” Sherman got his pie, from nowdefunct Mr. Mike’s in East Lansing. Saturday night — 35 years later — the pizza was still rolling in.
Over 100 students, volunteers, clients and friends of MSU’s Artificial Language Lab, Sherman included, gathered with their families in an oversized classroom in the Communication Arts and Sciences Building to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the pizza call.
Working from obscure cubbyholes on the MSU campus, Eulenberg, his small staff and cadre of student volunteers have helped thou sands of people punch a hole to the outside world.
Saturday’s celebrants listened to the life stories of people who could not make their thoughts known to others until Eulenberg and his staff fitted them out with joysticks, computer word boards, artificial voices and other gadgets.
Canton resident Sarah Palk relished the chance to repeat, via computer voice, what doctors told her parents after she was born with cerebral palsy: “Take Sarah home and love her, because she’s never going to do anything but drink from a bottle.”
The prognosis proved a howling mistake. The MSU lab outfitted Palk with a series of computer aids that maximized the muscle control remaining in her left hand, using keyboards at first, then touch screens. She graduated from high school, works as a medical researcher, makes her own doctors appointments and chats with friends on the Internet.
Palk also has a million -dollar smile, and she flashed it without mercy Saturday. “Without technology, I wouldn’t have created the relationships I now have,” she told the group.
Jim Renuk, a coordinator of MSU’s intramural sports, wowed the group with a com puter-assisted speech of his own. Like Palk, Renuk has cerebral palsy. “All my life, I have wanted to go beyond my physical limits,” Renuk said.
He also has a wicked sense of humor.
“When I was 7, my teachers and therapists told my parents they should think about institutionalizing me,” he said. “They did think about it, and I did, too.”
A slide of MSU’s Beaumont Tower appeared on the screen.
“Yes, I was institutionalized,” he said. “You see, I’m at MSU.”
While others guffawed, Melissa Martin of Lansing watched Renuk intently. Her 6-yearold son, Derek, also has cerebral palsy. Like Renuk, Derek Martin can’t walk, makes nonverbal sounds and has limited muscle control. But Eulenberg and his staff are fitting him with a customized device that senses acceleration as he moves his wrist. The technology is similar to the accelerometers used in sport simulators for the Nintendo Wii. For now, the device is little more than a duct tape bracelet with a computer chip inside.
“It’s still in the prototype stage, but it’s pretty exciting,” Martin said.
To communicate, Derek will wave his wrist over a symbol on a computer screen in his lap. He’ll select the symbol he wants to use by nudging a switch with his head, which he’s already shown he can do. It’s like moving and clicking a mouse, only with two different parts of your body. The corresponding word can appear on a screen or go through a textto-speech program to become audible.
Melissa Martin was reassured to see that Jim Renuk has traveled so far on a road that has just begun for Derek.
“The way Jim carries himself is so much like my son,” Melissa Martin said. “You don’t know what’s going on unless they have that outlet.”
Martin listened intently as Renuk talked about earning two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree from MSU.
“That’s what I’m thinking with Derek,” she said. “Un-tapping his ability to speak is going to take him so far.”John Eulenberg grew up in Chicago, where his mother was Director of the Red Cross Motor Corps in the late 1940s. At 7 years old, Eulenberg sang in a choir that entertained the disabled vets. “She would take me along when she drove a bus full of quadriplegic veterans, people with severe brain trauma, amputations,” he recalled.
“I lived in that world all the time. I realized these people were human beings I had the chance to have as my friends.”
Eulenberg’s aptitude for language and linguistics made him a top student at Harvard and M.I.T., but he
When he tells you this, his usual abstracted-professor gaze narrows into a white-hot beam.
“They didn’t realize it was they who couldn’t communicate — who couldn’t find a pathway for him to communicate,” he said.
Eulenberg speaks 12 languages, seven of them fluently.
During a meeting in his office two weeks ago, he switched to Swahili to practice with a student volunteer, Emma Ogutu, who is from Kenya and speaks KiSwahili.
Every client presents a different challenge. To filter out random, uncontrollable muscle movements,
Eulenberg called the lab’s funding a “patchwork.” The never-ending hustle for grants takes up a lot of his time.
Blosser called the job “life-changing,” and not just because he dodged that bullet.
“An engineer doesn’t often have opportunities like this — to interact with people oneon-one, let alone with peoplewho are struggling to communicate,” he said.
The implication of “universal design” is that any of us, perhaps most of us, will eventually need assistive technology of some kind. It’s
Film critic Roger Ebert, who lost his jaw to cancer surgery, unveiled a similar custom voice last month.
“Sandra Bullock made a da-a-zzling comeback,” Ebert gushed in classic form while offering his 2009 Oscar picks on “Oprah.”
“The difference is that Michelle didn’t have hundreds of hours of high quality film reviews recorded on TV,” Eulenberg said.
Finally, the room hushed for the night’s big ritual: viewing the tape of the historic 1974 phone call.
The pizza theme is classic Eulenberg. Fundamental
“Mr. Mike’s, may I help you?”
“I am YOO-sing a special de-VICE to help me to com-MYOO-nicate.”
“Oh, sorry, we didn’t understand what was going on,” Kenny said.
“PLEASE be PA-tient while I pre-PARE my re-SPON-ses.”
“I’d LIKE to
“O.K.” [Sound of Sherman tapping.] “O.K., it’s all
“A LARGE pizza please.”
“O.K., 16-inch?” [tap, tap,
“O.K., what would you like on it?”
“O.K., pepperoni and mushrooms. Anything else?”
“And some HAMMM! And SAWW-sage too.”
“No thank you.”
“This is for pickup or
“Would you please phrase that question so that I can answer
“Where should we deliver it to?”
“Where in the Computer Center, what room?”
“I need a name on this. A person to deliver it to.”
“We need to know — just a moment.”
“This is Donald
“Could you spell that?”
“Would you spell it?”
“S-H-E-R-M-A-N, O.K. Could I have a phone number
“O.K., the total on that pizza is $6.25.
“O.K., thank you.”
[Click, click, click.]